Tuesday, July 01, 2008

J.K. Rowling's war on Wausau summer camp

[NOTE: I thought this item on J.K. Rowling and copyright, which I wrote for my day job, might be of interest to AMillionMonkeys readers as well.]

It won't be Muggle Academy that kids grades four through 11 will attend next week at the University of Wisconsin Marathon County.

Instead, the Harry Potter-themed summer camp, developed by UWMC professors Holly Hassel (left) and Karley Adney, will go by the name "Wizarding Academy."

In a way, it's an improvement! As every Harry Potter fan knows, "muggles" are oblivious civilians who can't do magic. Technically, every kid who goes to the camp already attends a Muggle Academy -- every schoolday from August through June. A Wizarding Academy is surely much better.

But that is not the reason UWMC had to change the name. A clue to that is in the disclaimer the now sported on the Office of Continuing Education's Web site:

"This event is not sponsored or endorsed by J.K. Rowling, Scholastic, or Warner Brothers."

Yep, Hassel and Adney were the recipients of a call -- friendly enough, they insist -- from J.K. Rowling's legal representation. The call came soon after the WDH story Keith wrote about their (legally cleared) scholarly companion to Harry Potter, so it was clearly the result of some team of googling lawyers trolling the net for copyright crime.

But isn't this serious overkill on the Rowling people's part? Under what possible definition of copyright crime does hosting a summer camp fall? Put it another way: Will any of the kids who attend the Harry Potter-themed summer camp be less likely to buy books, see movies and otherwise participate in Pottermania? If the answer is "no," then what possible damage has been done to Rowling's brand?

To be sure, J.K. Rowling and her publishers have a legitimate interest in having some measures of control over their massively profitable brand. But from the beginning they have taken a pointlessly hardline view on copyright, whether that has meant suing to stop publication of international knock-offs like Tanya Grotter and the Magic Double Bass or threatening to destroy a middle school librarian from Michigan. Cracking down on summer camp is surely not the wisest PR move a kid-friendly brand can take.

Hassel and Adney take a rather more anodyne view on the question, and it's not like they chose to battle the lawyers' request. The guidelines are the guidelines, and it's not like they had to change the content of the camp itself.

But if you ask me, the point of copyright is to prevent copying. It's quite a distance from there to the point where anybody can claim to own the word "muggle."

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